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Hester Prynne's Individuality in a Puritanical Community

Hester Prynne's Individuality in a Puritanical Community

[14] Years after the Spanish American war, Roosevelt the individual excluded from the community. As one of expressed regret: “I have always been unhappy, most the reverends in the community, Reverend Mr. unhappy, that I was not severely wounded in Cuba . . . Dimmesdale’s unresolved guilt isolates him from his in some striking and disfiguring way” (qtd. in Jenkinson parish. The community isolates Pearl because she has 77). an irrevocable connection to her mother and her [15] Roosevelt codified this hunting ethic in the Boone mother’s sin. Community is a singular thing, but it is and Crockett club, which he co­founded with naturalist made up of individuals. As soon as an individual rebels George Bird Grinnell in December 1887 (Jenkinson 75). from the group, as Hester does, the entire group must Among other requirements and qualifications needed to denounce the individual because she mars their image gain acceptance into the club, “members were sworn to as a whole, and as individuals. When it comes to maintain a strict code of honor—always to engage in a religion, a community must disapprove wholeheartedly, ‘fair chase,’ never to lie about a kill, and always to especially of Hester’s deviant sin. Ignoring the sin maintain a focus on natural history as well as hunting” implies acceptance and therefore approval. The (Jenkinson 75). Clubs such as this one also maintained community needs to show God and its church that it a level of dignity by drawing on the rugged glamor of condemns the sin and the sinner and are more devout pioneers such as Daniel Boone and by sourcing Puritans than the individual. inspiration from the refined hunting culture in Great Hester’s punishment, assigned by her Britain (Rico 173). magistrates, is to stand on a scaffold for three hours with [16] Flipper believed that daily exercise routines called her shameful baby, and from that point on, to wear a “plebe drill” transformed the “most crooked, distorted scarlet letter A on her chest to signify her sin. The creature” into “an erect, noble, and manly being” (qtd. in purpose of the A is solely to differentiate between the Cusic 22). sinner and the innocents. When walking through town, [17] Flipper did see active combat in the Indian Wars visitors will know that Hester is somehow unlike the rest (1866­1891). Flipper and his troop pursued the Apache of the community without even knowing her story. By chieftain Victorio and his war party (Cusic 45). In one requiring her to openly display her difference, the skirmish, several soldiers were wounded and nineteen community forces Hester into exclusion. The entire Indians were killed. Flipper recorded later, “This was the community gathered around the scaffold to show their first and only time I was under fire, but escaped without solidarity against her and her sin, and to scoff and a scratch” (49). ridicule the sinner. An older woman, clearly influential among peers, disapproves of this punishment because she does not think it is harsh enough. She said that the church, the community, and Hester would benefit if the women, “being of mature age and church­members in Hester Prynne's Individuality in a good repute, should have the handling of such Puritanical Community malefactresses as Hester” (Hawthorne, 48). These “self­ constituted judges” are harder on Hester than they may Emma Pallarino be otherwise because they are her elders and are Rutgers University upstanding members of the church (Hawthorne, 49). They need to assert their authority over the younger During the nineteenth century, the theme of the woman in order to further elevate their standing in the individual in opposition to the community was prolific in church and the community. Not only is there an age gap politics, culture, and literature. In ’s between Hester and the older women, but she also , Hester Prynne, the bearer of the separates herself further by committing adultery. The scarlet letter, struggles with her community’s “shame” Hester brought to the church further inflames ostricization of her because she commits adultery, their hatred of her (Hawthorne, 49). In order to move resulting in a pregnancy. Although the isolation is difficult that shame from the community to the individual, they for her, she maintains her dignity through her sustaining must isolate the sinner. According to the elder women, strength. Although the community solely blames Hester since the magistrates’ punishment was not harsh for the sin because she is the mother of her illegitimate enough, they will have no one to blame but themselves child, Pearl, Hester is not the only one who suffers as when “their own wives and daughters go astray”

E. Pallarino 22 (Hawthorne, 49). In the extremely devout Puritan Hester constantly accepts abuse when she community, sin is infectious. If the community does not could easily run away from her situation and the isolate Hester, other women will follow in her community. In order to purge her sin, she is required to treacherous footsteps. remain in Boston. She is free to leave and live where When the town­beadle brings Hester from the she can “hide her character and identity under a new prison to stand on the scaffold, with “an action marked exterior” (Hawthorne, 72). She could make a new life with natural dignity, … [she] stepped into the open air, with her daughter without the social and religious stigma as if by her own free will” (Hawthorne, 49). This and subsequent punishment. However, she has enough punishment is given to her and she must accept it, but it dignity and individuality to endure the abuse and is her dignity, which allows her to accept it gracefully. punishment. Because of this choice to stay, she is a Even as she faces humiliation at the hands of her “martyr” (Hawthorne, 77). Her sin forces her to relinquish community, she is not afraid to admit to her sin. As much her place in society. Her community is bound to take her as the community pushes her out, she pushes the status whether she agrees that her sin is bad or not, but community away from her as well. She stands on the she could graciously hand over her status to them. Her scaffold, and “with a burning blush, and yet a haughty remaining in the community – even if on the outskirts – smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked and wearing the letter A maintains her dignity. around at her townspeople and neighbours” Hester’s graceful acceptance of her punishment (Hawthorne, 50). She understands her sin, but she to stand on the scaffold even though it makes her reclaims the power to ostracize herself by acting as if extremely vulnerable and uncomfortable shows her she is not afraid. If she were embarrassed, ashamed or strength. From this strength comes her dignity. She is uncomfortable, they would be able to make her feel embarrassed of the A, but still wears it in elaborate form. worse. But her outward display of dignity shows her Throughout the years, she still goes to the marketplace, extreme individuality. If she begged for their forgiveness embroiders linens for people, and is kind to her daughter or acted ashamed to try to regain admission into the – the most consistent and obvious proof of her sin. community, whether or not they accepted her, she would Although she is confined to the outskirts of the not be an individual. She is not conforming to their community, she still interacts as much as she can. All of standards: a sinless woman, or, if a sinner, remorseful these qualities require strength and dignity and ashamed. While exploring the woods, Pearl throws flowers This scarlet letter A on her bosom symbolizes at Hester’s letter A. Hester’s “first motion [is] to cover her her sin and the life of repentance she must endure bosom with her clasped hands. But, whether from pride because of her indiscretion. However, Hester made her or resignation…she resisted the impulse, and sat erect, letter in “fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate pale as death” allowing the child to continue her game embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread.” It (Hawthorne, 87). The flowers ironically represent her looked as though it was “greatly beyond what was lost virginity. Pearl, the result of Hester’s lost virginity, allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony” constantly reminds Hester of her sinful loss. The child (Hawthorne, 50). By wearing the symbol at all and then laughs devilishly, “dancing up and down, like a little elf, making it ornate, Hester shirks many social norms and whenever she hit the scarlet letter” (Hawthorne, 87), but expectations: she admits her sin and proves she is not Hester sits there and takes it out of “pride” or ashamed, she expresses her creativity and individuality, “resignation” because what is done cannot be undone. and she wears something that appears to be more Since Pearl is the direct result of Hester’s sin, expensive than what is socially acceptable to spend on Pearl is guilty by extension. Hester was beautiful and personal items. Not only is her letter ornate, but it also she performed the miracle of giving birth, but seems to mystically “take her out of the ordinary unfortunately, the birth had a “taint of deepest sin in the relations with humanity, and enclose her in a sphere by most sacred quality of human life.” Because of this sin, herself” (Hawthorne, 51). Because she wears her badge instead of the world benefitting from Pearl’s birth as with of dishonor with dignity and the community views it with other children, “the world was only the darker…and the disdain and relief that her soul is the condemned and more lost for the infant that [Hester] had borne” not theirs, people cannot relate to her because she (Hawthorne, 53). Pearl will always be a bastard child, no views her plight differently than they would view it if they matter her personality, spirituality, or beauty. The sight of were in her position. Hester holding Pearl on the scaffold even reminds

E. Pallarino 23 Dimmesdale of the “image of Divine Maternity,” suggests that Pearl chose to not make friends. Pearl (Hawthorne, 53) but since she came from her mother’s does not respect her peers because she had been born sin, Pearl will forever be the “sin­born infant” and into isolation. Had she lived a normal childhood and then nothing else she accomplishes will matter (Hawthorne, been sent into isolation, then she might have missed her 59). friends and understood that her situation was abnormal. Because of her isolation, Pearl is a strong­ Since she never experiences friendship and her only willed, disobedient child. Hester sees her own “wild, interactions with the community are filled with judgment, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper, anger and ridicule, Pearl does not want to be friends and even some of the very cloud­shapes of gloom and with her peers. However, Hester knows the feeling of despondency that had brooded in her heart” in Pearl acceptance and ostracization. Hester’s multiple (Hawthorne, 82). Because Hester knows that Pearl will experiences allow her to look at people with pity, not obey her, Hester finally gives up disciplining Pearl. sympathy, and sadness, whereas Pearl singular Like Hester, Pearl is headstrong and stubborn. Hester experience forces her to be hostile towards people. finally “stands aside, and permits the child to be swayed Because of her isolation, Hester has the ability by her own impulses” (Hawthorne, 82). Similarly, Hester to view the community from a particular angle. She was will not reveal who impregnated her to the magistrates. once an insider, but is now an outsider. This angle is No amount of “smiles and frowns” is going to persuade unique because most community members have never Pearl or Hester to do anything they do not want to do been isolated. From her perch on the scaffold where she (Hawthorne, 82). Because of her mother’s sin, “Pearl is completely vulnerable and alone, she can see “her was a born outcast of the infantile world” (Hawthorne, native village,” “her paternal house” (Hawthorne, 54) and 84). Hester wants to see her child playing with other “the intricate and narrow thoroughfares, the tall, gray children, but because Pearl is not allowed in the houses, the huge cathedrals, and the public edifices…of community either, Pearl will grow up solely interacting a continental city” (Hawthorne, 55). She can see the with her mother. community that once supported her and eventually Since the church controls the community, they ostracizes her. She also “looked from this estranged do not allow Pearl to be baptized (Hawthorne, 84). point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests Hester’s sin is sexually deviant, which is a much more or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly serious sins because women’s chastity is extremely more reverence than the Indian would feel for the important in Puritan societies. Because this sin is so clerical band” (Hawthorne, 174). Because of her removal vile, the community is even forced to religiously from the community, she can perceive its politics from a ostracize Pearl, who did not actually commit any sins. different angle than other individuals who are completely Hester describes Pearl as “worthy to have been brought engrained in the community. forth in Eden; worthy to have been left there, to be the Her cottage is “on the outskirts of town…not in plaything of the angels, after the world’s first parents close vicinity to any other habituation…comparative were driven out” (Hawthorne, 80). Pearl was such a remoteness put it out of the sphere of that social activity beautiful, innocent child, and more devout than Adam which already marked the habits of the emigrants…shut and Eve, she could have been left in Eden by herself to out from the sphere of human charities” (Hawthorne, play with angels. Yet the religious leaders who 73). She is physically removed from her community, but ostracized Hester even exclude this innocent babe. her sin emotionally isolates her from her community. An Because of this palpable isolation, when Hester tells her individual cannot be part of the community if she knows the heavenly father sent her, Pearl touches the A and other individuals’ secret. This knowledge brings out the says “he did not send me…I have no heavenly father” worse in people and does not allow them anonymity (Hawthorne, 88). They are taking religion from her within the community. The letter A “gave her a because she feels abandoned. She knows that, sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other somehow, this scarlet letter A is forcing Pearl and her hearts”, which people can perceive (Hawthorne, 78). mother into isolation. Even though the isolation is positive in granting Pearl’s “singularity lay in the hostile feelings her this different point of view, she is treated horribly with which the child regarded all these offspring of her because of her sin. The community views Pearl and own heart and mind. She never created a friend,” Hester’s relationship as perverse. The townspeople view (Hawthorne, 85). Hawthorne’s use of the word “created” Pearl as a demon offspring and therefore “not

E. Pallarino 24 unreasonably argued that a Christian interest in the she stands on the scaffold. He does not want Hester to mother’s soul required them to remove such a reveal they were married because he “will not encounter stumbling­block from her path” (Hawthorne, 89). Pearl’s the dishonor that besmirches the husband of the devilish behaviors could hinder Hester’s path back to faithless woman…it is [his] purpose to live and die righteousness. Others argue if the child really is capable unknown” (Hawthorne, 70). By shedding his identity and of “moral and religious growth,” it was also their assuming that of a single man, he loses his individuality. responsibility to transfer Pearl to a “wiser and better The community does not accept a man whose wife guardianship than Hester Prynne’s” (Hawthorne, 89). In committed adultery. If it knew his true identity, the all, the general census agrees the pair should be split. community would ostracize him the way it ostracizes However, Hester’s only form of extended human Hester. In order to be a member of the community, he interaction and feeling of purpose comes from Pearl. must lose his individuality. From the moment he She approaches the magistrates “full of concern…but so discovers Dimmesdale is the father, Chillingworth is conscious of her own right that it seemed scarcely an consumed by his want for revenge. This strips him of his unequal match between the public on the one side, and individuality as well. He loses all intrinsic qualities and a lonely woman, backed by the sympathies of nature on motivation and focuses solely on the destruction of the other” (Hawthorne, 90). She knows she is Dimmesdale’s mental and physical health. This singular independently against an entire community. Now that faceted purpose in life makes Chillingworth a one­ they want to take her child from her, she must dimensional person. The community accepts him, but he manipulate the argument so that she can keep her only has no personality or depth. companion. While the church wants to save their souls, The isolation caused by the sin affects every nature dictates the rights of the mother to her child, and character involved. Hester’s “life had turned…from the magistrates agree to allow Pearl to remain with passion and feeling, to thought” (Hawthorne, 143). Just Hester. as Chillingworth loses depth through his quest for Not only does Hester suffer from her sin, but so revenge, Hester loses her personality. She once shared does her companion in the sin. Pearl’s father Reverend emotional connections with other individuals, such as Mr. Dimmesdale’s internal strife stems from his her husband, her minister, and her fellow churchgoers. responsibility to lead the community. Ironically unlike In her isolation, she is trapped in her mind because she Hester, Dimmesdale is awarded his individuality by the is only allowed to interact with Pearl, a three­year­old community through their deep commitment to follow child. Hester also lacks guidance and support. As she him. The community appreciates his individuality stood “alone in the world, – alone, as to any because they need someone to lead them to heaven. dependence on society, and with little Pearl to be guided Because of this, it is acceptable for him to stand out. and protected, – alone, and hopeless of retrieving her Unfortunately, this individuality tortures Dimmesdale position,” she had to rely on her own strength to raise because he is overcome with guilt and cannot reconcile Pearl (Hawthorne, 143). In Puritan law, men control their with his community and Hester. Dimmesdale isolates respective women. Hester has no one to depend on or himself by allowing his guilt to consume his life. No one follow. Because she lacks guidance for herself, she knows he sinned except Hester, and the entire struggles to guide Pearl. Had she not sinned, Hester community adores him and his sermons. Yet he would have a man caring for her, accompanying her, imagines how the other ministers will receive him if they protecting her, and providing for her. Since no one can discover his sin. He always thinks about how do that for her, she must take on two roles in caring for hypocritical it is for him to advise his followers when his herself and her child. sin is oftentimes worse than theirs. His confident, Hawthorne acknowledges that individuals make learned preacher­self represents the community while up the community when he describes how “the multitude his guilty sinner­self represents the individual. “He [watching Hester on the scaffold] – each man, each seemed to stand apart, and eye this former self with woman, each little shrill­voiced child, contributing their scornful, pitying, but half­envious curiosity” (Hawthorne, individual parts” (Hawthorne, 54). The community in 194) because he cannot reconcile his two selves or Boston is strong because it is composed of weak, overcome his guilt. dependent individuals. In order for the magistrates to To further complicate Hester’s situation, her maintain control over their followers, these followers husband, , arrives in Boston the day must lose their individuality and abide by community

E. Pallarino 25 standards. They must give up their personal desires and Walker insists that her work “mimics the past, but it’s all live for the common good of the community. Hester about the present” (Tang 161). After her earning her strays from this conformity the first time when she has B.F.A. at Atlanta College of Art and further study at the sexual relations with her minister, a major violation of Rhode Island School of Design, Walker rose to community standards. She not only defiled herself, but prominence by winning the MacArthur Genius Grant in she defiled the leader of the community, and therefore, 1997 at the young age of 27 (Richardson 50). This the entire community. She does not conform again when prominent award poised Walker for great she bears the scarlet letter A with pride and dignity. The accomplishments, yet also exposed her to harsh community’s intention for punishing Hester is to force criticism from fellow African American women artists, her to fully repent. Hester seems to go through the such as Betye Saar, who launched a critical letter­writing motions of repentance. She stands on the scaffold, she campaign to boycott Walker’s work (Wall 277). Walker’s wears the letter A, and she lives on the outskirts of town. critics are quick to demonize aspects of her personal However, Hester’s “haughtiness,” “pride,” and “strong, life, like her marriage to a white European man, and calm, steadfastly enduring spirit” undermines the even her mental state, accusing her of mental distress community’s objective (Hawthorne, 213). due to the graphic and troubling nature of her work (Wall 295). Works Cited Walker’s silhouette installations involve black Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: life­size silhouette figures on a white, often panoramic Penguin Group, 2003. Print. wall. Occasionally, colored lights are used to create an environment for the silhouettes, but most often the installations are strictly black and white. In this way, Walker explores stereotypes of race and gender, Silhouetted Stereotypes in the Art of revealing individual and racial identities through details, Kara Walker yet forcing the viewer to acknowledge their complicity with stereotypes as the blank spaces of the installation Jeannette Schollaert are filled in with the viewer’s own definitions of Chatham University stereotypes, according to the social script. The black color of the silhouette figures is also the “color of all Kara Walker explores traditional narratives of colors combined,” commenting on the essential race and gender power dynamics in her black and white similarities between all human beings despite race and silhouette installations. By presenting most figures in the ethnicity. Walker states: “the silhouette says a lot with same black color, racial and individual features are very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype realized through detail. The theme of consumption is does. So I saw the silhouette and the stereotype as prevalent in Walker’s work, such as the consumption of linked” (Kara Walker 1). Also, the shadows of the viewer people as products in the slave trade as well as the interact with the silhouettes as each viewer closely consumption of breast milk in modern versions of the examines the works, becoming part of the installation in Madonna lactans. Walker’s work draws on traditional a similar, black form and placing the viewer in direct intersections of race, class, and gender dynamics to conversation with the silhouette figures (Seidl). Walker’s create an original commentary on the cultural work questions binaristic social systems of black and consumption of materials, beings, and art. Despite this white, male and female, light and dark, violent and commentary, Walker does not offer a clear stance on delicate, and as such, contributes to the these issues and leaves the audience without a deconstructionist approach to feminist thought. resolution to her shocking silhouettes. The use of silhouettes as a medium recalls the Born in Stockton, California in 1969, Walker eighteenth and nineteenth century domestic tradition of moved to Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of thirteen silhouettes as female crafts. Similar to needlework and (Richardson 50). This move exposed Walker to the other craft mediums, silhouettes were used as a pastime history of the “Old South” in comparison to her life in for domestic women. Shadow silhouettes were liberal California in the 1980s. Slave narratives are particularly useful for women to record the figure of their prevalent in Walker’s work, and the stereotypes Walker lovers as keepsakes, as men travelled for business or draws on are typical of an Old South mentality, but military service. The ornamental style of silhouettes is

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